October 19, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Europe

Last week, Spain celebrated El Día de la Hispanidad, AKA Spain Day, AKA my birthday! To pay tribute to the Spanish holiday (OK, maybe my birthday), my mom came from the US and we headed to Croatia. Our one-stop trip to Dubrovnik turned into a three-country tour of the Balkans. Yeah. So while I play catch up, I wanted to give you all a little preview of the sweet, mom-funded holiday. More to come soon!

View of Dubrovnik from the city walls.

View of Dubrovnik from our hotel, Villa Dubrovnik.

Pretending to write, but instead distracted by the view. Can you blame me?

Narona, Croatia

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Kotor, Montenegro

Crossing the bay in Montenegro

October 7, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Expat, Food and wine, Spain

News flash: I’m obsessed with Spanish food.

And you know what? Nothing chaps my culo like faux Spanish cuisine (yes, I’m talking to you, San Francisco “Spanish” restaurants – if I see another taco on your menu I’m going to refry your beans).

Oh but you can imagine my excitement when I found out about a traditional Spanish cuisine cookbook – in English. The American author, Elizabeth Parrish, has lived in Spain for 22 years, so she knows a thing or dos about Spanish cuisine, and also how it translates to the American table.

Now, I’m not going to lie (would I ever lie to you? No, never), I can cook, however I pretty much don’t like to. But I’m a big eater and studier of foods, so my first line of business was to examine her book, reading every last word about the ingredients and methods.

So far so good.

Next up – convince Jacobo to cook a few of the recipes with me so that we could give it a try. He was game.

Fresh off of my obsession with The Canary Islands’ papas arrugadas (wrinkly potatoes) and mojo, I thought that would be just the dish to try. Super easy to make, it was just right for someone like me who wants less cooking and more grubbing. The contrasting sauces – one of red chili pepper and the other of green bell pepper and cilantro – are like the peanut butter of Spanish sauces (that is – they go with anything!). Most typically served with the famous salted and wrinkly papas arrugadas, they can easily top off chicken or fish (or you can just slurp it straight from the bowl – whatever).

The recipe from La Buena Mesa was mojo-and-papas perfection. My only suggestion: opt for a food processor rather than a ghetto Ikea mortar and pestle. Achieving a pasty consistency was virtually impossible, and plus all the elbow grease totally went against that whole “less work, more eat” philosophy that I was talking about.

After whipping up that mean batch of garlicky goodness, a girl needs some sweets (this one anyway), so that can only mean one thing: turning to the back of the book to find a dessert. The winner – one of my Spanish faves – natillas. I’m also kind of an expert on them (says me). Unfortunately, the natillas and I kind of got in a bit of a fight as my two batches turned out more like eggnog than custard. But I suppose they still had some yum potential if you like to drink your desserts. I’m still not really sure what went wrong…

THE VERDICT: Spanish cooking isn’t about precise measurements, and true to that spirit, Elizabeth has admittedly kept many of the formulas loose. I can easily promise that this cookbook captures the essence of regional Spanish cuisine – but be sure to bring some chef savvy to your pretend Spanish kitchen or else you’ll end up with watery natillas.

Now, for a little Q&A with the author:

LTV: Do you have any favorite recipes?
EP: I guess my favorites are the ones I make time and time again. In summer, hardly a week goes by that I don’t make a batch of gazpacho. In winter, it’s chicken consommé and, of course, I add a bit of fino to it. I’m also fond of the “classics,” like Spanish omelet, flan or chicken in garlic sauce. And I like Spanish comfort food along the lines of lentils with chorizo or fried eggs and potatoes (in olive oil, of course). If I’ve got a little more time, almond and pine nut soup is a favorite. I almost always make it for Christmas. I also like fish a lot and if you’ve got access to good seafood, you can’t go wrong with Catalan fish stew.

LTV: Which recipe was the most difficult to master?

EP: I would say that the most difficult was probably the Galician rye bread. I think that anything involving yeast is open to a lot of variables. There’s the flour, which differs from place to place, the type of oven used – especially where bread is concerned. As you know, people here don’t make their own bread; they buy it at the local bakery. That means professional ovens or artisan stone ovens – something a home cook doesn’t have access to. And then there’s the climate, which also affects the final outcome. I just think that bread is tricky.

LTV: What was your most memorable experience when learning how to make these recipes? And/or is there a dish that is particularly sentimental?

EP: When I first lived in Spain (nearly 25 years ago!), I shared an apartment with two other girls, one of whom was from Salamanca. I wanted to be able to make a Spanish omelet like the ones I ate in local bars. I made it time and time again. After each try, Marga (one of the roommates) would tell me something along the lines of “you need to cook the potatoes more slowly” or “you need to use thinner slices.” So every time I made it, I would fine tune that omelet according to whatever advice Marga had given me until one day she finally pronounced it as being right. Spanish omelet is also one of the few Spanish dishes that my mother made when I was growing up. Whenever I visited home, my father always requested that I make the omelet. My mother was too worried about his cholesterol and skimped on the eggs. I threw cholesterol to the wind and went for taste and texture.

LTV: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Spanish cuisine?

EP: I think that the biggest misconception is that it’s like the food from other Spanish-speaking countries or that it’s spicy when, in fact, I find that Spaniards are pretty adverse to hot peppers and spices. It’s a Mediterranean cuisine that has grown out of the collective experience of the people who inhabit this particular area, influenced by climate, terrain, and availability of ingredients. Spain isn’t even on the same continent as the rest of the Spanish-speaking world!

LTV: What is your favorite regional cuisine? (Mine is Galician – hands down!)?

EP: Galician food is excellent. I love hake, Galician-style; however, I think that a big part of what makes the food there so great is the exceptional seafood that comes from those waters. The Atlantic there is cold with lots of undercurrents and white water and that makes for spectacular seafood. And you simply can’t find that kind of quality in seafood everywhere, which makes some of the dishes hard to duplicate outside of Galicia. So I guess I’m going to have to bat for the home team and go with Catalonia. The cooking can be both amazingly simple and straightforward (bread with tomato and olive oil) or downright baroque, but it’s always ingenious. I mean, they’ll season meat with cinnamon or thicken and flavor a sauce with ground almonds and hazelnuts. If you want to try a Catalan recipe that you can incorporate into your everyday meal repertoire, try Chicken with Vegetable Medley (pg. 140). It’s easy, healthy, thoroughly Mediterranean, and, of course, tastes good; otherwise, what’s the point of eating it?

LTV: How is life in Spain as an American expat? Do you plan to stay here indefinitely?

EP: I won’t say it’s easy, but it’s certainly a learning experience and I think I’ve grown from it. Some people figure out early on what they want to do and follow a charted course and that’s perfectly valid. Others of us are given somewhat more uncharted maps. I try to be open, to explore what I’m interested in, and not panic! I don’t really know if I will stay here indefinitely or not. I’m divorced with a 10-year-old son and right now my number one priority is taking care of him and making sure that he is stable, happy, and doing well. (He is.)

LTV: Outside of the cuisine, what do you love most about Spain?

EP: I like the villages here. I like being able to disappear into a rural setting with its close contact with nature, the quiet, the architecture, and the slower pace.

Finally, the important part: to win yourself a cookbook, leave a comment below telling me your favorite Spanish dish by Monday, October 10th and I’ll do an extra-scientific hat drawing to pick the winner. Buena suerte!

And you know the drill – if you buy the book via my site, I will get a microscopic commission (we’re talking pennies people).

October 3, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Europe

When you go to Italy, try not to catch a death cold. I’m serious – it really blows (no pun intended). But I did, and I made the best of it. As Guido explained to his parents: “She’s American, she doesn’t complain.” Ha ha, I’ve got him fooled. Oh the things I will do for good pasta and wine.

The trip had to go on, so off to the local towns of Ravenna and Cesenatico we went. Ravenna – a rival city to Guido’s Cesena – is home to churches filled with colorful mosaics, and also some of the best pasta I’ve ever had (see that ravioli – it’s covered with a butter-and-sage sauce that tasted so good I can’t even talk about it).

Then we visited the sweet port-town of Cesenatico that hugs a 500-year-old canal surveyed by (whatever that means) Leonardo da Vinci. Lined with colorful buildings and filled with even more colorful boats, I think Cesenatico might just be able to give tourist-filled Venice a run for its money….at least once it sinks anyway.

About 50 minutes away, we visited Bologna where portico archways dominate the sidewalks of the university town. And because a country can’t have just one leaning tower (here’s looking at you, Pisa), Bologna’s got a pair of its own. Actually, I can’t really be sure which one is leaning, or if both are, but suffice it to say that something isn’t standing up straight (Guido tells me it’s because there’s an aquifer below them, but I think he was making a lot of things up, so don’t quote me on that).

Finally, as I was about to pass out from pretending like I wasn’t practically on my deathbed, we stopped in Perugia. You want to know who else stopped there? Hundreds of journalists, that’s who. All lingering around and chatting about the Amanda Knox trial. I honestly didn’t think much of our visit prior to going, much less the timing, until a friend of Guido’s living there mentioned that the week to come would be a big one. Judging by my news feed, I’d say that’s about right.

More than Amanda Knox and a murder mystery, the hillside town is one giant monolith of rock – rock buildings, rock stairs and a rock aqueduct that shoots out of the city off to who knows where. Larger than life with gasp-worthy stone walls, staircases and arches, the town made me feel a bit like a shrunken Alice in a medieval Italian wonderland.

So now I’m back in Spain, still a little sick and without any chance at having good homemade pasta. Let the complaining begin!